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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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‘Wiz’ eases down to St. Pete for American Stage in the Park

American Stage eases on down the road to an R&B beat for the 29th outdoor “In the Park” production this spring.

“The Wiz,” a reprisal of the 1970s Broadway musical inspired by Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” and the 1939 MGM musical, has the classic characters on a journey of self-discovery, singing and dancing to rock, gospel and soul.

Opening tonight and running through May 4, the annual American Stage in the Park production will be performed at Demens Landing Park, at First Avenue South and Bayshore Boulevard Southeast in downtown St. Petersburg.

Originally created as an all-black, urban version of the Oz story, “The Wiz” debuted on Broadway in 1975 in the wake of the Black Power and Black Pride movements in art, music, fashion and film. Instead of “follow the yellow brick road,” Dorothy and her friends sang “Ease on Down the Road,” which became the most popular song from the musical. Other songs include “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)” and “Believe in Yourself.”

“The Wiz” won seven Tony Awards, including best musical. However, a 1978 film, starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross and a young Michael Jackson, was a box office flop. Critics blamed a flat performance by 33-year-old Ross, who had replaced 17-year-old singer Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. The film also failed to capture the fun and energy of the stage version.

More recent revivals have gone for multi-ethnic casts, expanding the “be yourself” theme to be more inclusive. “We have a mixed cast of seven African-Americans, two whites, a Hispanic and a Native American Indian,” says director Karla Hartley, an actor, director, set, lighting and video designer who has been involved with numerous theater productions in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

The cast includes Whitney Drake as Dorothy, Torrey Thomas as Scarecrow, Chris Walker as Tin Man, Sara Del Beato as Lion, Darryl Reuben Hall as The Wiz and Uncle Henry; and Sharon Scott as Aunt Em, Evillene and Glinda.

Scott, a veteran of American Stage (starring in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), says she has performed in other productions of “The Wiz.”

“I love a good journey story that asks ‘where are we going and why?’ and this one holds up,” says Scott, a native of Queens, N.Y., who played off-Broadway and toured in “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “Nunsense” and was a jazz singer before settling here.

“I grew up in the theater, and I’ve always been a character actor,” she says. “Characters keep the story going and keep it interesting.”

She’s no stranger to the In The Park productions, having played the voice of the alien carnivorous plant Audrey II in American Stage’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” Drake was in that production, too, as one of a trio of singers.

Hartley says the stage version goes back to the book, and the 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” but this Dorothy has silver slippers instead of ruby red ones.

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